A 21st Century Journalism Project

Poor health

In Defining The Problem on March 1, 2012 at 1:09 pm

By HANNAH SPEAR

Statistical graph from the US Census Bureau ~ Income, Poverty, and Health Care: 2010

The working poor in America dread every minor ache, pain, or symptom of a cold. This worry stems from the uncertainty many face about the ability to pay for health care. Uninsured or under insured, health care inadequacies run rampant throughout the working poor population in the United States.

A U.S family of 3 lives below the poverty line if their total income is less than $19,090.  50 percent of Americans are considered low income making less than $38,000 a year. According to 2012 census data, 46.2 million Americans live with the struggle poverty.

Since 2001, family health care coverage premiums have nearly doubled, to just over $14,000. This leaves working poor families with an average of just $5,000 for taxes, family expenses, basic necessities and more. An overwhelming majority of working poor families live underinsured, or simply go without health insurance.

The most recent annual report on Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage: 2010 reports that the poverty rate increased for three consecutive years between 2007 and 2010. Those living in poverty also increased for the fourth consecutive year in 2010, to 46.2 million. Meanwhile, income and household earnings have declined steadily.

Statistical Graph ~ Distribution of the Working Poor by Indsurty

Only 18% of the working poor were covered by health insurance in 2010. 26.9 percent of people in households with annual incomes less than $25,000 had no health insurance coverage. Marlene Kim, Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations notes that most working poor have in jobs that offer few opportunities for advancement or benefits like health care. These jobs are in the most crowded sectors of the labor market: retail trade and services. 38 percent of the working poor are employed in the service sector, and another 30 percent work in retail.

Poverty is a catalyst to poor health, but it is also consequence of working and living in perpetual poverty. A recent study by Jay Zagorsky at Ohio State has found that one-third of the working poor have health limitations or other serious conditions that may limit their ability to rise out of poverty. He found that those who suffer from such conditions are more likely to become members of the working poor, and that the working poor who have such conditions stay in poverty longer and earn less money once they finally leave poverty. Nearly half of the working poor with serious health conditions stay in poverty for five or more years.

According to University of Michigan public policy professor Sheldon Danzinger, many low-income families with work-related and medical expenses are often considered to live above means necessary to qualify for ‘safety net’ programs such as food stamps and tax credits.  Poor healthcare prospects for low-income families could cause a continued rise in poverty rates over the next few years.

This monumental issue affects the working poor around the globe, and in our backyard. 31 percent of Americans relied on some type of government plan or assistance to receive health care in 2010. More than 41,000 Pennsylvanians became uninsured in 2011 after Governor Tom Corbett ended adultBasic health insurance in one of the largest disenrollments in recent history. Former governor Tom Ridge began Pennsylvania’s adultBasic program in 2001 to support those who earned too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to afford private insurance. It allowed qualifying members the option to purchase health insurance for an affordable $36 per month. For thousands of Pennsylvanians, their insurance is gone and they are left without comparable coverage.

Many Americans work everyday to break free from the struggles of poverty. Progress is slow but visible. The official poverty measure has been based solely on cash income since 1964, despite global financial instability and societal change. The Census Bureau is developing a Supplementary Poverty Measure (SPM) that will work to enhance the view into the depths and complexities of poverty in the United States. SPM will incorporate additional economic strains such as tax payments and work expenses, when evaluating estimates of family resources. The poverty threshold used in the SPM is based on a family’s basic necessities (food, shelter, clothing, and utilities) adjusted for geographical differences, and studied over time. The implementation of SPM should give a more complete understanding of poverty in the United States, which will enable us to take better care of those struggling with poverty and longing for good health.

The reality of living without health insurance leaves many working poor facing difficult choices. People debate whether to go to the doctor if they feel sick because of the financial impact. Many ignore doctor recommendations because prescription or treatment costs are unaffordable. Some even feel forced to opt out of life saving surgery to pay for household expenses. Ultimately, the high costs for good health discourages preventative care and promotes ignoring doctor recommendations, leaving many with serious health concerns.

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